Sunday, June 28, 2020, New Philadelphia Installation Service
Jeremiah 28:1 – 9 Where Do I Begin?
Where do I begin? I mean, this is a very special day for me. I’ve been installed. You have bid me welcome in the name of Jesus, our exalted Head. We worked out a way that I could sing with my brother and sisters and still stay within the guidelines for safe gathering. It all feels really good.
But, you know, now reality sets in. What do I mean by that? Well, some of you know that this is not the first time that I’ve preached here. But it is the first time that I’m preaching here knowing that I’ll be preaching here next Sunday and the next Sunday after that…
This is not a preach-and-run or a drive-by preaching. For the first time, I’ll be around to deal with the results (or the consequences) of what I’m saying today. So, knowing how important “this” is, I started looking for guidance and direction. And I went first to one of my go-to sources of inspiration – our Moravian Daily Texts – and I looked ahead to Sunday, June 28.
The first thing that I noticed was that one of the hymns chosen for today was “O Jesus I have promised to serve thee to the end.” You see, it was when I was 17 years old that I first felt God nudging me, gently pushing me in the direction of mission and ministry. I wasn’t sure what my response would look like, but I made a promise to God to serve God in some way. And I expressed that promise by taking the words of that hymn and putting them to my own tune and singing them to God when I was 17, and then I sang them again at my ordination in 1996 and then again at my consecrations – first as a presbyter and then as a bishop – and now this morning with my brother and sisters here at New Philadelphia.
Then I saw the other hymn verse chosen for today. It’s the 3rd verse of the hymn “Ready Lord, I’m ready Lord.” Listen to what it says:
Ready, Lord, I’m ready Lord to follow where you lead
Show me, Lord, just show me Lord the service you will need
Ready Lord, I’m ready Lord, I’m ready come what may
So call me, Lord, just call me, Lord and I’ll be on your way.
Feed your lambs, I’ll feed your lambs, and first of all with food
Give them drink and comfort them and build their fortitude
Then I’ll feed them with the word you fed me with until
They’re ready, Lord, so ready, Lord to go and do your will.
More than words, yes, more than words, I know you want from me
Moving, Lord, I’m moving, Lord, I’m moving eagerly
Take my heart and take my hands, my feet, my life, my all
I’m ready, Lord, so ready, Lord to follow till I fall.
And I thought, “Wow! I could just read those words to you and call it a day!” But then I looked at one of the verses chosen for today, from Luke 9. It says,
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” I took that to mean, “There’s no turning back. It’s all or nothing!” And the prayer for today: Help us to be faithful in our service according to your divine command to follow you.
There was so much good stuff to work with. And I hadn’t even looked at the assigned Scripture readings for today! So I looked at the verses in Matthew chapter 10. Now I sometimes refer to Matthew chapter 10 as a mini-mission-manual. It tells us how Jesus called his disciples in and got to know them and then gave them instructions and gave them authority and sent them out on a mission. And I thought, it’s interesting how I’ve spent the past 16 years trying to find ways to get people out of the church building and out into the world, and now my first challenge in ministry is trying to find ways to get them back in the building. But the portion of Matthew 10 that is assigned for today, as we heard, is about welcoming, so that had lots of possibilities and potential.
But then I looked at the Jeremiah passage. And the first thing I noticed was these words (starting in verse 2): “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. 3 Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. 4 I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.”
And I thought This is it! I get to share this prophecy – this hopeful word – on my first Sunday. Everything is going to get back to normal by such and such a date. Bring the hymnals back in! Break out the communion trays and patens because communion will be served right here… to everyone! Not only that, the other problems we have are all going to go away! Oppression, political divisions, racism, injustice, conflict… The yoke will be broken and we’ll all live happily ever after! That would have been a great way to begin.
But, not so fast. You see, I took a closer look at the reading (that’s always important when we’re reading Scripture), and even though it says, “thus says the Lord of hosts,” as it turns out these are not God’s words. They’re not even Jeremiah’s words. No, here’s what Jeremiah says starting in verse 1 instead of verse 2 like I did: He says:
“In that same year, at the beginning of the reign of King Zedekiah of Judah, in the fifth month of the fourth year, the prophet Hananiah son of Azzur, from Gibeon, spoke to me in the house of the Lord, in the presence of the priests and all the people, saying…”
And then comes the part about the yoke being broken and returning all of the vessels to the temple and the exiles coming back – all of the good stuff! But these were Hananiah’s words.
Now, they certainly were not bad words. Actually, this was a very pastoral message in some ways, but it wasn’t prophetic because… it wasn’t true.
I’ve been taught that ministry in the church – ministry to God’s people and with God’s people – has three aspects or three components.
There’s the pastoral part. A lot of times we call our ministers “pastor.” Pastor means shepherd. And pastoral ministry has to do with caring for the flock – feeding the lambs, tending the sheep, as I have been charged with doing. And I look forward to getting to know this flock and being a part of the significant moments and events in your life and hopefully being able to bring comfort in difficult times.
But there’s also the priestly part of ministry. Now, in our corner of the Moravian world, we don’t normally refer to our ministers as “priests.” But our ministers do fulfill a priestly function. That means that ministers serve as mediators between God and God’s people. The way I like to describe that is to say that I am not called to pray for you, but I am called to pray for you. What I mean is that you don’t have to outsource your prayer time to me as the professional pray-er (one who prays). God hears your prayers just as God hears my prayers. But I am called to pray for you in the sense that I have a responsibility to pray to God on your behalf and lift up petitions and intercessions for you. And the other part of the priestly ministry is that I serve as God’s instrument by serving you the sacrament of Holy Communion and by baptizing and confirming and marrying and burying you and sharing God’s word with you as clearly as I can. That’s a priestly ministry.
But there’s also the prophetic part of ministry. Again, in the Moravian Church in North America, we don’t normally call our ministers “prophet so and so.” And this is not necessarily prophetic in the sense of predicting who’s gonna win the next Carolina – Duke basketball game (or when that will actually take place!). Prophetic ministry means listening carefully to God and discerning what God is doing and saying and then communicating that to God’s people as faithfully as possible.
Now sometimes that means comforting the afflicted. But at other times it can mean afflicting the comfortable.
Prophetic ministry requires a lot of discernment because I can’t set the vision for a congregation unless my vision is in line with God’s vision and my words are in line with God’s word
And my heart is in line with God’s heart.
So, pastoral, priestly and prophetic. And ministers don’t really get to pick and choose which one we’re going to be. No, pastor, priest and prophet are like 3 “P’s” in a pod (of course, in this part of the world we often call our ministers “preacher,” as in, “Did you see how many pieces of chicken Preacher ate at the church picnic?” So maybe there’s a 4th pea!)
But in our reading in Jeremiah today I get the impression that Hananiah was trying to be pastoral.
I mean, these people had lived through a lot. We talk about 2020 being one bad thing after another (and now a Saharan sandstorm!). But I’ll tell you, the early 600’s and late 500’s (BC) were no picnic for God’s people. They always managed to be caught in the middle of power struggles between the Egyptians and Assyrians and Babylonians and they never got the good end of the deal! They were oppressed from all sides and sometimes even from inside by their own leaders. And the temple was destroyed and first their leading citizens and eventually all of them were taken into exile by the Babylonians.
They needed to be comforted. They needed words of hope. And Jeremiah recognized that, so he said to Hananiah:
“Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles.” But for words to be truly comforting they need to be true. Pastoral words need to be prophetic. And as Evie so clearly stated it: The proof of prophetic words is in the pudding.
And you better get used to groaning because this won’t be the last time I do this, but I’m going to play with Evie’s words and say it this way: The proof is not only in the pudding. The proof also comes in putting these words to the test of time. And as Jeremiah said (in verse 9) “when the word comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”
Evie would have loved to be around Jeremiah, I think because Jeremiah was the master of object lessons. For example, when he wanted to make his point about people being bound together by God, he went out and bought a linen belt and wore it and then took it off and buried it for a while and then dug it up and wore it again just to make that point – just to show how much we need God to keep us bound together.
When he was angry with the people because of their disobedience to God he bought a clay jug and smashed it in front of everyone to help them see how hard it would be to put the pieces back together and repair the damage that had been caused.
One of his object lessons was a field that he bought for 17 silver shekels.
And to make the point about oppression in exile he wore an actual yoke around his neck – a wooden yoke! And we didn’t hear this part of the story today but after Jeremiah questioned the truth of Hananiah’s words there was a dramatic scene where Hananiah removed the yoke from Jeremiah’s neck and shoulders and smashed it to pieces! But Jeremiah said, “You’ve removed the wooden yoke, but soon it will be replaced with an iron yoke.”
So is this prophetic or just pessimistic? You may be getting a picture of Jeremiah kind of like that old Saturday Night Live character, Debbie Downer (or I guess it would be Donnie Downer – Wah Wah!). Why is he so negative? No, you see, Jeremiah was committed to the truth. And he knew that sometimes the truth can be hard to swallow. He knew that people were hurting and he wept for them but he felt that the medicine they needed was reality.
Jeremiah had lived through many political, social, and religious periods and contexts. His ministry spanned the reigns of 5 kings of Judah. And he knew that ministry takes place in the real world and that God doesn’t always insulate us from that world but God is always with us in the midst of that world. And when Jeremiah wrote a letter to the folks in captivity he shared this word from God with them (you’ve probably heard this verse) and we can hear more of the pastoral side of Jeremiah in these words: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
You see, those words are comforting and they’re also true – not false hope or false promises. And he knew that people were suffering because of the way they were treated by King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians but he felt that the bigger problem was that they were not being faithful to their covenant with God, and coming out of exile and being freed from captivity wouldn’t necessarily fix that problem.
So his message to them was, “While you’re worried about getting back to the temple, you need to also be focused on getting back to God.”
God has promised to redeem you and restore you and God is faithful. God will do that in God’s time. But in the meantime, you need to figure out who God is calling you to be and what God is calling you to do in the place and in the circumstances in which you find yourselves right now.
That wasn’t really what the people wanted to hear. They wanted a quick fix. But Jeremiah was telling them that they needed to be molded and refined. They needed to examine their own faithfulness to God and not just rebel against the terrible things that others were doing.
Well, as you can probably imagine, his message wasn’t always popular (and I don’t just mean some negative comments or angry emojis on Facebook.) No, once when he was banned from speaking in public, he sent a written prophetic word to the king by way of his assistant (whose name was Baruch) and Baruch gave the scroll with Jeremiah’s message to one of the king’s people and he read the message to the king and the king showed what he thought of Jeremiah’s message by taking the scroll and cutting out the parts that he didn’t like and throwing them into the fire.
(Don’t get any ideas!) And Jeremiah was scorned by his own people and beaten and arrested and put down in a pit.
But what is it that gives him credibility? Where and how did he get this prophetic authority? If we go back to chapter 15, Jeremiah says, “When I found your words, I devoured them; your words were my joy, the happiness of my heart.” You see, during King Josiah’s reign, when they were renovating the temple, they discovered a Torah scroll – art of the Hebrew Scripture. That was an amazing discovery. And Jeremiah devoured it – he ate it up! He feasted on God’s word and realized that the word needs to be written not only on scrolls or stone tablets or in books but rather in our minds and inscribed on our hearts. Before we can share God’s word we have to know God’s word and we have to love God’s word, we have to devour God’s word.
When a minister is ordained in the Moravian church, we are asked if we freely accept 6 obligations: to study, pray, care for souls, preach, teach, and administer the sacraments. Notice which one is first. Study. And the second one is pray. And then care for souls. And then comes preach and teach and administer the sacraments.
I accept those 6 obligations again today. And I recognize that if I’m going to feed the sheep, I have to have something to feed them. So I will need to study and pray so that I can care for souls and preach and teach and administer the sacraments.
Do you remember the question that I asked at the beginning of this sermon? It was, “Where do I begin? And I guess the answer is, “I don’t.” Because I’m not really beginning anything. Pastor Joe reminded you last Sunday that the ONE who did begin the good work in you (and in me) will be faithful to bring it to completion.
So, what’s my part in that? Well, there was one more verse in the Daily Text for today – the watchword chosen for June 28th a long time ago. It’s Psalm 16:8 and it says: I keep my eyes always on the Lord. That’s what Jeremiah did. He kept his eyes focused on God. That didn’t keep him from seeing God’s people. Keeping his eyes always on the Lord didn’t keep him from seeing the real world around him. No, it helped him see all of these things through God’s eyes and with God’s heart. If I can manage to do that – if I can keep my eyes always on the Lord – and if you can do that with me, I look forward to seeing, together, what God has in store for us next Sunday and the next and the next, as we say:
Ready, Lord, we’re ready Lord to follow where you lead.
Show us, Lord, just show us Lord the service you will need.
Ready Lord, we’re ready Lord, we’re ready come what may
So call us, Lord, just call us, Lord and we’ll be on your way.
~Bishop Sam Gray